Quiet unease as DRC shuts down

By Aaron Ross

KINSHASATHE usually bustling streets of Democratic Republic of Congo capital Kinshasa were nearly empty on Wednesday amid a general strike called by the opposition to press President Joseph Kabila to step down in December.

Kabila’s two-term mandate expires in December, but the country’s ruling coalition and other smaller parties agreed last week to postpone November elections until April 2018, citing logistical problems registering millions of voters. Congo’s top court also approved a delay on Monday.

The country’s main opposition bloc says Kabila is using the delay to cling onto power. His allies say he will respect the constitution.

Last month, dozens died in two days of protests in Kinshasa against the election delays, prompting strong criticism of police aggression from rights groups.

Activity in the city of more than 10 million people was nearly paralysed on Wednesday, despite calls by the government to avoid the strike.

One of Kinshasa’s main roads, Boulevard Lumumba, normally thick with morning traffic, was empty on Wednesday and a deep quiet replaced the usual sound of car horns. Almost no stores were open and most public transport was not running, forcing the few who headed to work to walk.

Police in riot gear patrolled the streets, but there was little to do.

“We want Kabila to leave power on December 19. We are going to march until he resigns,” said Moise Miya, a 26-year-old delivery man for a store in north Kinshasa who was not working on Wednesday.

Wednesday’s strike appeared to be a success for the Congo opposition, and showed growing support. A similar strike called in August was only partially successful.

“The opposition has won today, they have scored points,” said Emile Ngandu, a motorcycle driver at the city’s central bus station where buses normally packed with people sat idle.

Ngandu normally makes about $12 by 9:30AM, but this morning had made just $2. “If I don’t work, I’m not going to eat,” he said.

In the eastern city of Goma, over 1,000 people marched on the office of the governor of North Kivu, chanting against the agreement to postpone the election and lighting fires in the street. Police fired tear gas to disperse them, witnesses said.

Kabila first took office in 2001, and in 2006 a new constitutional provision limited the presidency to two terms, which expire on December 20.

The country’s main opposition party, the UDPS, called the deal signed between the government and fringe opposition groups a “flagrant violation” of the constitution and said the strike would show Kabila “the yellow card”.

The European Union has threatened sanctions if Kabila does not call a vote in 2017.

Former colonial power France is warning Kabila that delaying the vote could plunge the country into civil war.

French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said this week: “There is only one way to get out of the crisis – the president (Kabila) must arrange elections.

“Pushing back the election to 2018, an uncertain date, is not the solution. There is a real risk of a clash. There is a danger of violent demonstrations and repression.”

Kabila, who came to power in 2001 when his father was assassinated, says he will respect the constitution but has yet to rule out attempting to change the country’s laws to enable him to run for a fresh term.

He insists that the electoral commission must carry out a voter registration exercise in the country of 67.5 million people before an election date is set – a process estimated to run until 2018.

The presidents of neighbouring Rwanda and Congo Republic changed their constitutions last year to allow themselves to stand for a third term, and Kabila’s opponents say they fear he will do the same.

Hundreds of people have died since last year in neighbouring Burundi after its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, pursued and won a third term in office that his opponents say is unconstitutional. – Reuters/Staff Reporter